Called the “annual message” for most of United States history (from 1790 to 1946), the State of the Union has evolved with the times. It began as a largely straightforward report of all the events, foreign and domestic, impacting the U.S., and grew into a prime-time television event laying out the President’s grand future for the nation.
Today, the President is invited by the Speaker of the House to give an address at the House of Representatives, where the President stands at a podium flanked by the Vice President (who also serves as the head of the Senate) and the Speaker of the House. But this wasn’t always the case. George Washington and John Adams gave speeches to Congress, but in 1800, Thomas Jefferson, believing the whole speech thing to be a bit monarchical, began a new tradition of simply sending a written address over to Capitol Hill. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson brought back the in-person speech, and it’s been delivered as such ever since (except in 1981, when lame duck Jimmy Carter delivered his speech only in writing).
The State of the Union is usually more concerned with policies and political agendas than the florid words extolling the importance of freedom that fill most inaugural addresses. But some of the most memorable presidential statements can be found within these political screeds, such as Abraham Lincoln’s call to action at the outset of the Civil War, or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” address. Below are 10 quotes from State of the Union addresses that speak to a deeper wisdom beyond politics, and continue to echo down the halls of history.
Knowledge is in every Country the surest basis of public happiness.
— George Washington (1790), urging the pursuit of science in his first address
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present… fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.
— Abraham Lincoln (1862), on the imperative on winning the Civil War
We may either fall greatly or succeed greatly; but we can not avoid the endeavor from which either great failure or great success must come.
— Theodore Roosevelt (1902)
Social justice comes first. Law is the machinery for its realization and is vital only as it expresses and embodies it.
— Woodrow Wilson (1913)
We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech… The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way… The third is freedom from want… The fourth is freedom from fear.
— Franklin D. Roosevelt (1941)
The mere absence of war is not peace. The mere absence of recession is not growth. We have made a beginning — but we have only begun.
— John F. Kennedy (1963), on the importance of vigilance during the Cold War
Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.
— Lyndon B. Johnson (1964), in reference to his “war on poverty”
There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.
— Ronald Reagan (1985)
And to the children and young people… Fix your vision on a new century — your century, on dreams we cannot see, on the destiny that is yours and yours alone.
— George H.W. Bush (1990)
Unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
— Barack Obama (2016), at the conclusion of his final State of the Union
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